Blake Backlash takes Philip Larkin’s declaration that ‘sexual intercourse began in 1963’ as point-of-departure to explore cinematic depictions of sex in early ‘60s British cinema. Or maybe he just watches some old films and tells you about the dirty bits.
It was not impossible to see two people fucking at the pictures in 1963, it’s just that they would be more likely to be doing it in the back row behind you than on the screen in front of you. A Place to Go came out that year and in one scene a young couple go to the pictures. The boy gets turned on by the slightly salacious film that is playing, but more turned on by the fact that the place is full of couples necking and pawing at one another. There’s passion on-screen and off – but, crucially, the people in the audience are going further than the people on-screen. A Place to Go is trying to draw a distinction between the coy Hollywood depiction of sexuality and the more real and fingery sex in the cheap seats. Now, the detail of what’s going on between those couples is only implied. So the film is making a point about how films can’t show you everything… while not showing you everything. But it knows that you’ll get the point because, well, you know the kind of thing that goes on in a cinema auditorium in 1963. That’s where you’re watching A Place to Go.
Philip Larkin, in his poem Annus Mirabilis told us that sexual intercourse began in 1963. So since we’ve been having sex for just over fifty years now, I thought I’d look back at some films that were made or released in ’63 and explore how sexual intercourse began (or didn’t) in British cinema that year. Now, a big problem with this notion is that one reason Larkin’s line is so memorable is because we know that sexual intercourse did not begin in 1963. We know where babies come from and we know that something as intrinsic to human experience as shagging can’t be assigned a start date. And we can see films made before ‘63 that are saturated with sexuality. To take an example from the heart of the British film-making establishment: in 1949 Robert Hamer made Kind Hearts and Coronets for Ealing Studios. The performances of Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood in that film suggest women aware of both their own sexual needs and their ability to channel the desires of the men around them to meet those needs – and other more material ones.
Except that I’m cheating here, aren’t I? Because sexuality is not sexual intercourse. A cinematic evocation of all the emotions that can swirl around sex (desire, anger, regret, love) is different from showing, or even suggesting, what might actually happen between two people when they have sex. So I decided to look not just for the sensual and the sexual but for sex itself. To look for a depiction of, or even a suggestion of, what takes place when people make love. A point of comparison may be useful here, so feast your eyes on this:
He was my perfect specimen of a man. And he wanted me. He couldn’t have stopped now anyway. We crashed across the room. A little table went flying. He pinioned me in the corner by the door. I relaxed. Because he was just kissing me with all the power of man in a frenzy of passion.
I made one last attempt to get away. But he caught hold of me. Our very impetus carried us through the door, and we half fell into my bedroom… he was like a God… Clumsy perhaps but only because he wanted me.
But afterwards came the dark shadows, when he was lying beside me.
That’s from the News of the World in June of ’63 and is supposed to be Christine Keeler’s account of sex with Eugene Ivanov, the Russian naval attaché (though the prose makes it pretty clear it was been written by some tabloid hack). It was Keeler’s relationship with Ivanov that threatened the political career of one of her other lovers, John Profumo. Profumo was the real sex story of 1963 – the Chatterley ban had actually ended three years before. Maybe the hard-patterning of consonants in ‘Chatterley ban’ suited Larkin’s metre more than the flutier ‘Profumo affair’.
I’ve quoted from the Keeler article because it is a depiction of sex from a mainstream medium (albeit a non-cinematic one) that gives us some idea of how explicit the mainstream could be. It tells us something about how hard the people of Britain might be expected to take it, as it were. And, loaded with clichés though it is, it does depict sex as something that unfolds between two people. There is an attempt to describe what the sex itself was actually like.
In The Yellow Teddybears a young female biology teacher, played by Jacqueline Ellis, at an all-girls school tells her class ‘Sex can be as clean or as dirty as you want it to be’. To which one is tempted to respond that blessed indeed are those for whom sex truly can be as dirty as they want it to be. But there’s no room for that idea in the film, no sense of the variety of sexual experience. Instead we get a chalk-dust dry debate about sex education. Ellis defends it to her school board by arguing that loving sex with a loving partner is a fine thing – but the film makes no attempt to suggest or evoke anything of what loving sex might actually be like. One struggles to find hints of what it means for sex to be clean or dirty. Or tender, awkward, brief, endless, funny, boring, angry, loving, a mistake, the best thing that’s ever happened to you, enervating, or uplifting.
That seems true of many of the films made around 1963. So in the Boulting brothers’ Heaven’s Above! there are jokes about the number of children Eric Sykes has and we see a boy in church reading Lolita while pumping the organ (I mean the church organ, that reads ruder than it looks on screen). And A Girl Like That, despite being retitled Teenage Tramp in the USA and being sold like this:
is much more concerned about making you aware of how venereal disease is spread; what it might do to you; and how embarrassing it is having to tell your steady about, than it is with sex. Even a film from the British New Wave like Tom Jones, which is supposed to be a sexy film, makes a point of how it will not show you any sex. It borrows a technique from La Ronde (which is much wittier, more erotic, and more true) and has the camera look away, as the narrator tells the audience they cannot see what is taking place, any time what is taking place is love-making.
But here and there, something else happens. I want to talk about three scenes, from three lesser-known films. We’ll start by returning to A Place to Go. Much of the film follows that young cinema-going couple (Rita Tushingham and Michael Sarne) as they try to find somewhere to screw one another. The title refers to the sense of community that’s being lost as residents of Bethnal Green are moved out of their homes as part of early ‘60s slum clearances. But it’s also about A Place to Go to Fuck. Tushingham and Sarne settle on a bombed-out house until, as the closing credits roll, it gets demolished as part of that slum clearance.
But the real moment of sensuality comes not from these kids but from their parents, played by Doris Hare and Bernard Lee. That’s right: M from the Bond films gets sexy. There’s a scene where we see them getting ready for bed. She’s brushing her hair and worrying about him because he’s quit his job at the docks; he’s getting angry with her for being worried. But they make up and he sits beside her on the bed. He’s in his vest, she’s in her nightie and they kiss. It’s a full and tender kiss, and a sexy kiss. A kiss that tells you that not only are they about to have good sex, but they have had good sex through the years of their marriage. One is taken aback because of how rare it still is for films to acknowledge the sexuality of people over fifty. And, without making much of fuss about it, A Place To Go evokes a sense of passion that comes, not from the excitement of being with someone new and unknown, but from the intimate knowledge gained after decades of sharing sex, the same bed, the same life with someone you care deeply about.
Not all marriages are as happy. In 1963 Valerie Hobson from Kind Hearts and Coronets was coping with being married to John Profumo, who had insisted she give up her stage and film career when they married. Keeler was not his first lover; he was unfaithful throughout their marriage. She wrote to him about how trying his philandering was for her. He would, she wrote, ‘stretch any manners to do this, laughing and showing off like an adolescent’.
If she saw The Pumpkin Eater perhaps she sympathised with Anne Bancroft’s character. The film is about the impact her husband’s continual infidelity has on her state of mind. You should see it for Bancroft’s performance – it is so particular and vivid you find yourself fascinated by how her shoulders move when she breathes, or what she does with her eyes when she lights a cigarette. Peter Finch is her unfaithful husband. There’s a moment where the two of them are in bed, and we know that her knowledge of his infidelity sits somewhere inside her, like a shard of glass wrapped in silk. He is caressing her face and as he caresses her mouth, she bites him and presses her own hand over his, as if she is trying to hurt him and silence herself at the same time. He leans into her and bites the back of her hand. The scene evokes something of the strange relationship sex can have to pain, physical pain and emotional pain. It is about the way that, when a lover has hurt you, you can find yourself wanting to hold them even closer, at the same time as you want to run away. The way that hurting one another creates a kind of intimacy between two people that can leave each of them wanting to conquer that hurt by gripping it through the other person’s flesh and bones.
The Bargee evokes a gentler, more melancholy sadness around sex. Harry H Corbett (looking, I swear, pretty damn sexy) goes up and down Britain moving goods on the canals. He has a woman at every lock – but Christine, played by Julia Foster, is the one he should be with. We see them, after sex, start to have an argument. The sadness that imbues the scene comes in part from the way that the moment depicted seems familiar – if you’ve ever had a fight after sex, you may find a sympathetic dread in the pit of your stomach as Corbett and Foster move from tenderness to that horrible intimate estrangement you feel when you fight with the person in bed next to you. But the sadness also comes from an atmosphere of loss that is present in the whole film. There is a lost pastoral quality to all the scenes of canalside beauty depicted. People had already stopped moving goods by canal when the film was made, and the freezing winter of 1962/63 killed off an already ailing industry. So the film is about a way of life ending, about something beautiful disappearing. This sense of loss heightens the very sexual sense of loss in the scene where Foster and Corbett fight. And it’s a loss that is about sex more than it is about fighting. Because even when we don’t fight after sex, we still have to get out of bed some time. We have go to work, catch a train, eat. Even if we’re able to spend the rest of the day with our lover, we cannot stay in our bubble of post-coital closeness forever. The coming day will always put some distance between us.
Each of these three moments seems to me to evoke a truth, still striking today, about what we hope for and what we risk when we share sexual intimacy with another person. But in 1963, for many people, sharing such an intimacy meant risking condemnation and prison.
Robert Hamer, who made Kind Hearts and Coronets died in December of that year, aged only 52. He was often very unhappy and drank too much for a long time, which seems to have contributed to his developing the pneumonia that killed him. While at Cambridge he was sent down for having an affair with a male student. Both of his marriages seem to have been difficult and one of his closest friends, the Ealing scriptwriter Diana Morgan who wrote Went The Day Well? and Pink Strings and Sealing Wax, has said that ‘probably he would have been happier to live as a homosexual’.
Two years earlier Basil Dearden, who directed A Place to Go, made Victim, which is a humane film and makes a sincere case for the reformation of the law on homosexuality. It is also serious about depicting gay characters sympathetically and showing the destructive consequences of prejudice. But Victim had to keep its two gay protagonists apart for the film’s running time. They cannot share the screen with one another, never mind sharing something as tender and loving as that kiss between Bernard Lee and Doris Hare in A Place to Go.
I am not pointing that out to criticise Victim. And I am not trying to condemn the filmmakers of 1963 for not showing us a gay kiss. In fact, it’s wanting to celebrate the moments I have written about that makes this caveat seem necessary. Seeing some aspect of yourself reflected on a cinema screen always has a power. But that is particularly true about seeing an aspect of your sexual self reflected up there. Sex can often be the thing in our lives that much of our shame and self-condemnation coalesces around. And, because it is so intimate, so personal, we can hold such wounding instincts in quite a deep place. So if we see something of ourselves there when Anne Bancroft bites Peter Finch, it can feel unsettling. But it can also feel like we have been offered understanding, even compassion.
The three scenes I have described work for different reasons. But I think all three, by virtue of their honesty if nothing else, are generous and tolerant about what can go on between two people when they want to share sex. It would be wrong then not to acknowledge that such generosity and tolerance were hard for gay men and women to find in 1963 – and not getting that can give shame and self-condemnation a freer hand. This, as may have been the case with Robert Hamer, could have deeply sad consequences.
But I still want to say the honesty of these scenes matters. It is probably a stretch to suggest these films reflect a growing tolerance that would lead to the law changing. But the virtues of these scenes are the virtues that help people when they strive for change: honesty, curiosity about others, openness, a sense of humour, generosity, a willingness to take risks. I would argue that it is no coincidence that people who embody such virtues tend to be good in bed.